There is a lot of coal on earth. The short view is that coal can be substituted for oil products in liquid fuels from natural gas up to diesel and jet fuel. The method for converting coal to liquids, which has been in use since the early 1920s, is called the Fisher-Tropsch process. F-T has always been a fallback technology in tough times, whether during war cut off from oil or just politically isolated and embargoed the F-T process has been able to fill desperate needs. The whole world is a little bit price desperate now and likely without much warning to be seriously desperate again.

That makes the F-T process something every country needs to have well plotted into planning. The leading producer today is South Africa’s Sasol converting some 120,000 tons of coal to 150,000 barrels oil products daily out of a world total of 232,000 barrels most of which goes to diesel and jet fuel.

The technology is improving from private companies looking to compete head on to oil products. The difference between the existing companies like Sasol is their willingness to add or substitute biomass to the coal. Biomass offers some advantages. Some biomass comes with higher hydrogen content so yielding more net fuel product. When making fuels the gasification stage ahead of the F-T process uses heat to drive off the light carbon, oxygen and hydrogen from the feedstock. Thus, the more available hydrogen for fuel reforming the less CO and CO2 are left over for disposal.

The problem again is coming up with hydrogen. In reforming the theoretical output might be 100% recycled CO2 when hydrogen is fully supplied. The feedstock itself is the current limiter by its content of hydrogen.

But even today with oil coming back to near $100 a barrel the F-T processes can be highly competitive. It’s the carbon and hydrogen available in the feedstocks that make pricing work or not. Coal at $50 a ton, as shown by Sasol can yield 1.25 barrels of oil equivalent, can be worth twice the feedstock price. South Africa found that Sasol profits got so high that excess profit taxes were levied.

In the U.S. several companies have started coal to liquid process experiments that range from pilot plants to commercial installations. The big oil firms like Shell, Exxon and StatoilHydro are already running in South Africa, Malaysia and New Zealand closing in on 60,000 barrels a day of production.

The little guys like American Clean Coal Fuels who is developing a 30,000-barrel per day combined biomass and coal plant in Oakland Illinois uses carbon capture and sequestration to keep the unused CO2 from the atmosphere.

Baard Energy is building a 53,000-barrel per day combined biomass and coal plant in Wellsville Ohio with a market for the excess CO2 headed to oil field enhanced recovery.

Rentech Product Demo Unit

Rentech Product Demo Unit

Rentech Synthetic Fuels is operating the only functioning U.S. F-T coal to liquid fuels unit. The product demonstration unit is designed as a pilot with facilities to test feedstocks such as natural gas, different types of coal, and biomass. Small at only 10 barrels a day the plant is really a giant lab bench test unit with much improved information gathering for transition to commercial scale facilities. Rentech in a joint deal with Solena Group and Acciona Energy plans to build a fully biomass fed plant to make jet fuel and naphtha. Rentech is also involved with DKTW in the Medicine Bow Wyoming plant.

DKRW is hard to pin as a small company. While building the Medicine Bow plant with technology from Rentech the plant also uses Exxon Mobil technology, General Electric technology, UOP of Honeywell Company technology, Davy Process technology and is partnered with Arch Coal for its supply. Its like the deal is the accumulation of the best technologies that can be assembled for an early U.S. model coal to liquid fuels plant. If anything it’s quite an example of deal assembling to bring disparate technologies to work in one stack of processes.

Of the most interest points is the technology breadth of the reforming process to determine the end products. From methane to middle distillates F-T offers a full range of fuel products.

But the other hand is holding that 1600 pounds of carbon from each ton of coal or biomass that isn’t being made into fuel. Most everyone’s process to date leaves 3/4s or so of the raw carbon from coal or biomass to be disposed of rather than sold as fuel. The price difference between oil and coal is the opening that makes the companies involved with F-T viable. But should the gap close by either a fall in oil or a rise in coal, or likely both, the squeeze will be substantial.

The unknown in all of this is a hydrogen source to bring the full carbon supply to the fuel market. There is a multiple of five in this for the unused 1600 pounds for total output someday if the hydrogen can be supplied cheaply enough.

With plant sizes quoted from 20,000 to over 50,000 barrels per day it doesn’t take that many to get to a million barrels per day – and 14 times that would wipe out U.S. oil imports. The U.S. would only need 280 50K bbl/per day plants. Just 56 plants if the hydrogen can be found. The U.S. could easily be an energy and fuel exporter again without much trouble and a little technological breakthrough.

The reality question is political or environmental. “What share of the carbon in the fuel will be sourced and recycled through the planet’s current carbon cycle?” One puzzle deserving some thought is how much organic material can be redirected to gasification and on to F-T. I suspect that if the hydrogen can be economically supplied the issue of affordable liquid fuel supplies will wait many decades again.

The developed world can solve its oil and gas problems with F-T. All the facts and sources are enough to make an oil exporter very nervous, indeed.


Comments

6 Comments so far

  1. Exxon Mobil » Blog Archive » Is There A Future for Coal To Liquid Fuels? on September 4, 2008 3:58 AM

    […] Software news by Brian Westenhaus […]

  2. Is There A Future for Coal to Liquid Fuels? « BaseLoadGeneration on September 11, 2008 5:11 PM

    […] There is a lot of coal on earth. The short view is that coal can be substituted for oil products in liquid fuels from natural gas up to diesel and jet fuel. The method for converting coal to liquids, which has been in use since the early … http://www.newenergyandfuel.com/http:/newenergyandfuel/com/2008/09/03/is-there-a-future-for-coal-to-… […]

  3. nurse assistant on November 8, 2010 5:27 AM

    My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

  4. ralph on October 4, 2012 8:34 PM

    as a mechanic i heard about this process 30 years ago at the time of the araib oil embargo this energy is now not future dreams
    LOBY CONGRESS NEWSREPORTERS educate the public only about 2% know 30yrs ago icould get 50mpgalon on VW diesels now there are proud of20mpgal

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